I've created a new version of this page updated for the 2003 model vehicles.

The older information is below:

Safest, Most Fun-To-Drive Vehicles (with manual transmissions)

This is a discussion of manual-transmission, 2002-model-year vehicles available in the US that are some of the most promising such vehicles from a safety perspective, with a bias towards those that are also fun to drive. These vehicles also represent some of the safest, most fun-to-drive vehicles available with automatic transmissions, but the list is not as comprehensive in that category.

First there is a table summarizing the most important features, specs, and test results. Then there is a discussion. For each vehicle, I give a description of the issues that I find most troubling. Luxury or acceleration were not considered significantly (though other performance measures such as braking and handling were since they have more significant safety implications, and are also very important in determining driving fun, at least for me). Your personal biases may be different from mine, and you may want to check out my list of automotive links or my other pages on safe, fun-to-drive vehicles to do your own research.

Table of promising 2002 models

Biggest problems are horrible reliability and high price. Minor complaints: Telematics system (BMW Mayday system) is not stardard, is too expensive an option, and doesn't work as well as other telematics systems (see X5 board), or at least the NAV system doesn't and it isn't clear to me how much the Mayday system costs as an option or whether the NAV system is required (the NAV system is way too expensive). There should be a 6th gear on the manual transmission. Would like to see reviews of adjustable ride height option and comparison with Audi allroad and/or VW/Porche SUV versions. Why doesn't the car stay low at higher speeds like the allroad? Would like to see how much sport package and adjustable ride height affect handling with numbers (skidpad, slalom, or CR emergency avoidance maneuver). How much does the extra couple inches help offroad performance? Would like more crash test results (only IIHS so far, plus the special IIHS pole test). Will not be tested by NHTSA for 2002 unfortunately. How about an EU NCAP test? How come they don't test any SUVs? Minor gripe: Would like the side airbags to have sensors for occupants in deployment path.

Bottom line: The X5 seems to be the only SUV with stability control, head airbags, and a manual transmission (if you don't count the Audi allroad as an SUV, or the only one with all those things and good crash test scores even if you do count the allroad). Even if you don't care about a manual transmission, there is no other vehicle that is as heavy or as tall (for visibility) but that nonetheless handles and brakes as well as the X5 (the allroad isn't as heavy or as tall, but definitely comes in second for amazing heavy/tall handling).

Audi allroad quattro
Biggest complaint is no direct crash test scores and crash test scores for the A6 on which it is based that aren't great (only an "acceptable" 3 out of 4 from IIHS). It likely won't be tested by either NHTSA or IIHS. Other big complaints are reliability (black star from CR just like the X5) and price. Minor gripes: Doesn't seem to have brake assist. Needs sensors for people in the side air bag deployment paths. (It does remedy the X5's telematics issue with standalone On-Star option, has a 6th manual gear, and does the height adjustable suspension correctly.)

Subaru Forester
Biggest complaint is lack of side head airbags and lack of stability control. It is a little light (i.e., low weight) for the best safety. Annoyance: the AWD system is different on the manual and auto transmissions (see http://www.eskimo.com/~eliot/awd.html for example), and the manual transmission system seems to be the older technology. Minor gripe: Could use a telematics system too. The 2003 redesigned model will go on sale soon and will have side torso and head airbags standard, but will still not have stability control, and due to being redesigned, crash tests and reliability numbers will need to be re-assessed.

Bottom line: If you don't mind not having head airbags and stability control, the Forester is the best performing (handling, braking) of the cheap or mini-SUVs that has good crash test results and above average reliability. It's also the cheapest AWD of any kind you can get with side airbags, good crash test scores, good handling, and good reliability. The 2003 model should be better with the full compliment of side airbags. Hopefully the crash tests will come quickly to confirm this.

2002-redesegined Honda CR-V
Biggest issue is general newness uncertainty. Need crash test results (will be tested by NHTSA for 2002), but if they are as good as the Civic on which it is based they will be good. Need CR reliability rating. Biggest complaint is lack of side head airbags and lack of stability control. Minor gripe: Could use a telematics system too. Is ABS only available on the top trim like the Civic, cause that would be annoying?

2002-redesigned Audi A4
Biggest issue is uncertainty about reliability. Consumer Reports won't have a rating out until Fall of 2002 after their next survey. The only other issues at all is the greater safety risk from not being a higher, heavier SUV. Previous A4 was average 3/5 rated for reliability from CR. Has not been IIHS crash tested, but has been EU NCAP tested (arguably a better frontal crash test than the NHTSA test on par with the IIHS test and just as good a side test, see crashtest.com). In the EuroNCAP test, the A4 did better than the BMW 3-series and 5-series, Volvo S40, S60, S70, and S80, Saab 9-3, VW Golf and Passat, and many others (this covers front and side, where the A4 got a perfect 100%). Watch for: On-Star isn't available yet, but should be by summer 2002.

Bottom line: Top car choice. Cheapest manual transmission AWD vehicle with head airbags and stability control that also has good crash test scores. I believe there is no cheaper vehicle that has better directly-comparable crash-test scores. Telematics and brake assist (plus electronic brake force distribution) are all bonuses. Basically, it has every major safety feature that is available today on a wide variety of vehicles, lacking only very new things like night vision, or not-widely-available things like Volvo and Saab's active head restraints. The only current vehicle with better directly-comparable crash test scores available in the US is the Saab 9-5, which is not available with AWD, and which does not handle as well. To get a manual transmission SUV that is as safe, you have to go up to the X5 (for a lot more money, and a lot worse gas mileage and slightly worse handling). The A4 also has one of the best stopping distances of ANY vehicle in any class (though this may only apply to the 3.0 trim with its bigger front brake rotors).

BMW 325xi
Biggest issue is price ($2-3k more than similar A4, with the price difference getting even bigger if you similarly equip them) and lack of a telematics system (or is Mayday available? Autosite says no, but even if it is available, it probably costs a lot more than On-Star in the A4). As with A4, not as heavy or a high as an SUV. Crash test scores a bit worse than A4 in EU test but also has IIHS test, in which it did well, so that is good. Only real advantage over A4 is established reliability, but reliability is only average (about +10% CR rating, or 3/5).

Bottom line: Probably the only manual AWD vehicle with head airbags, stability control, good crash tests, and average or better reliability (the one thing the A4 doesn't have, yet).

2002-redesigned Subaru Impreza WRX
Biggest issue is general newness uncertainty. The first crash test result has now come in (IIHS) but still need side crash test results. Will be NHTSA tested sometime this year. Has a CR reliability rating (above average), but this is based on the data from the previous generation Impreza. Biggest complaint is lack of side head airbags and lack of stability control. Also, the sedan's seats don't fold down. I would only want the WRX to get the side torso airbags only available at that trim level, and would only want the wagon to get seats that fold down. The A4 has better safety features for only $1-2k more without AWD or about $3k more with AWD. The Impreza did extremely well in its recent IIHS crash test though (I still need to update the table above), getting a "best pick" and the best scores in the small car class. This makes it a much more reasonable choice overnight, and a cheaper and more fun-to-drive choice than the A4. The Forester doesn't handle as well, but is just as cheap with the side torso airbags and soon with curtain airbags as well. Perhaps we'll also see curtain airbags on the Impreza for 2003? Stability control can't be too hard to add now that the Subaru has had a chance to play around with it in the top trim Outbacks.

Ford Focus
Biggest problem is really bad reliability (worst rating possible from CR). Would be nice to have a telematics system. Weight is a bit light (lighter even than the Jetta). Other than that you get an amazing amount of safety features (side torso and head airbags, traction, and stability control), plus good crash test scores, in a very cheap package ($16-$17k) that is fun to drive and handles great. Definitely the cheapest vehicle available right now (1/2002) with head airbags and stability control. Until the Golf/Jetta are available with stability control (coming on 2003 models), the next cheapest manual transmission vehicle with head airbags, stabiliy control, and good crash test scores is the FWD A4, which costs $8-9k more. (The head airbags on the Focus are part of the side airbags. In other words the side airbags protect both the head and torso, as in the Saab 9-3 and some other vehicles. It's a bit difficult sometimes to tell from certain auto websites whether or not a particular kind of side airbag protects just the torso or the torso and head, but the IIHS site and CR both seem to get the info correct.) One tricky issue is how well the crash test scores from the hatchbacks and the sedans carry over to each other. The sedan has good results from US tests, the hatchbacks have EuroNCAP results. CR doesn't separate their reliability results by which factory (hatchbacks for one vs. sedans and wagons for the other).

Bottom line: As long as you don't mind really poor reliability, it's the cheapest vehicle available with head airbags and stability control, plus it has good crash test scores as well. (Note that sedan/wagon and hatchbacks might be reasonably considered separate vehicles for the purpose of crash tests, so be careful looking at the different test scores. They are both good, but you shouldn't think that the sedan tests apply to the hatchback or vice versa.)

VW Golf/Jetta
Other than not being AWD, biggest issue is lack of stability control, but it will be an option on 2003 models and even earlier 2002 sporty-but-stripped-of-luxury Jetta GLI trim models supposedly will go on sale with stabiltiy control (and ABS and traction control) standard for $23k. The GTI will also get stability control for a couple thousand less. Slightly lower weight than Passat or A4 and only average reliability according to CR. Would be nice to have a telematics system. Could bump up to a FWD A4 for that if desired.

Bottom line: Should be the cheapest vehicle with head airbags, stability control, good crash test scores and at least average reliability (and thus the cheapest safe vehicle with a Consumer Reports recommendation).

VW Passat
Biggest issue is lack of stability control, but 2003 models will get it. Next biggest issue is whether old crash test results carry over to the new version which supposedly changed almost all parts in the vehicle. Would be nice to have new IIHS and side crash tests, but both NHTSA and IIHS seem to think the old crash tests should apply and lists them for 2002 (and thus probably won't retest), while crashtest.com separates pre- and post-redesign. Could use a telematics system.

Bottom line: 4 cylinder engine has better reliability than Golf/Jetta or even the Honda Civic, plus it's heavier than those vehicles. Best non-AWD choice if you favor weight and reliability over stability control, and in 2003 with stability control clearly the best non-AWD choice (several thousand less than the FWD A4). The Jetta is almost as safe and probably a bit more fun to drive, however.

Honda Civic
Biggest issue is low weight, lack of side head airbags, and lack of stability control. Biggest annoyance is that you have to get the highest EX trim to get ABS. Will ABS be available on lower trims for 2003 (price would be a real selling point then)? Would be nice to have traction control as well. Also, annoying that the hybrid electric version to come this spring will be automatic only. Passat or Golf/Jetta seems a much better choice, especially with stabiltiy control.

2002-redesigned Nissan Altima
Biggest issue is general newness uncertainty. Need crash test results (will be 2002 NHTSA tested, and will probably be IIHS tested eventually based on projected sales volume and the fact that they tested the previous generation Altima). Need CR reliability rating (likely to be good). Biggest complaint is lack of stability control and lack of traction control with the manual transmission. Minor gripe: Lack of telematics. Still, a few thousand cheaper than the Passat without the big engine. If the crash tests results are good and the reliability better, it could be the better non-AWD non-SUV non-stability-control option, coming in under $20k.
Unfortunately, IIHS doesn't release information on models they plan to test in the future (see their FAQ).

Why is it so hard for the automotive industry to sell a manual transmission vehicle in the US that has stability control, head airbags, good handling, good crash test scrores, and good reliability? I'd really like to see a small or mid-sized SUV for under $40k with:

I suspect that we'll see a vehicles meeting these specs starting in the 2004 or 2005 model years, but probably not in the 2003 model year.

More information about automobile safety.

Other health and safety related consumer info that I've collected.

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Karl Pfleger
November, 2001